Still Standing

Ben Marcin's free standing rowhouse photo

Cruise down any avenue in Baltimore and you will inevitably run across a scene like the one above. These solitary townhomes are sometimes all that remain of formerly vibrant neighborhoods. According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 one in nine housing units in Baltimore lay vacant. The city has aggressively razed abandoned properties to remove fire and health hazards, but the result is a street that looks empty and forgotten.

The row house is an unlikely Baltimore icon. It’s been depicted on everything from local beer labels to crafty painted window screens, and even abstracted into the background of indie band stage shows. Every house I lived in over the past 11 years was a row home. The icon is engrained into the psyche of nearly every Baltimorean, so it’s no wonder that Ben Marcin began photographing the city’s stand-alone buildings. What sets his photo series apart is his ability to speak about the idiosyncrasies of our city and its social and political climate. Every photograph in the series shares the same composition: one row house, front and center. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Marcin discusses what compelled him to photograph these scenes. For me, the series is a reminder that you can use one very small thing to describe one very big problem.

Good infographics can save lives

I recently finished reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, a gripping account of a deadly cholera outbreak that struck London in the summer of 1854. Scientists of the time were convinced that cholera was an air-born disease brought on by the appalling sanitary conditions of Victorian-era London. Yes, London was a squalid place and inadequate waste and garbage removal was responsible for the potent smell that permeated the city. However, the root of the problem was not in the air but in the water. The water-born theory was first proposed by Dr. John Snow, based on his observations of the number of victims who were clustered near a particular fresh water pump. Snow was convinced that the pump was infected with the cholera bacteria and that drinking water from the pump was responsible for so many deaths. To help visualize the theory, he drew a black line on a map to indicate where each victim resided at the time of death. The map also pointed out the location of all water pumps in the area. Clearly there was a correlation between the pump and the number of deaths near it. Superstitions die hard, but eventually the map helped sway opinion away from the air-born theory.

It’s thrilling to see how innovative thinking and good information graphics played a heroic role in solving a frightening medical mystery. Yes, good infographics can save lives.